Following our in-depth look at the extraordinary fuel-carrying capability of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft, we return to look in detail at this fascinating warplane, which is more or less unique in its field today. While the Su-34 retains much in common with the Su-27 Flanker from which it was originally derived, its front end looks radically different and the jet incorporates a variety of relatively unorthodox changes that optimize it to fulfill its primary strike role.
First, it’s worth looking at the origins of the Fullback, also known as the ‘Hellduck’ or ‘Platypus,’ which currently serves exclusively with the Russian Aerospace Forces. The general aircraft concept has been around a long time already, having first been pitched as a successor to the swing-wing Su-24 Fencer as long ago as 1977. At this early stage, the Soviets envisaged a lightly modified Su-27 into which existing navigation/attack sensors from the proven Su-24 could be added.
At the same time, the Soviet Air Force was lukewarm to the idea. The Su-27 fighter wasn’t yet established in service and the definitive Su-24M version of the Fencer only began to roll out of the factory in 1979. It wasn’t until June 1986 that the decision was formally taken to develop a ‘Strike Flanker,’ initially known as the Su-27IB, signifying Istrebitel-Bombardirovshchik, or fighter-bomber.
The first prototype of the Su-27IB, ‘42 Blue,’ was built by Sukhoi in its Moscow workshop, using an adapted Su-27UB combat trainer airframe. The original tandem two-seat cockpit was replaced by an all-new forward fuselage with side-by-side seating. The prototype made its maiden flight on April 13, 1990, with Anatoly Ivanov at the controls. The program progressed amid the disruption of the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the aircraft plant at Novosibirsk (which had also built the Su-24) being tasked with full-scale production.
A first series-production jet from Novosibirsk flew in December 1993 and early the following year, the Su-34 designation was announced. The first few aircraft were used for trials of avionics and weapons, but the development program was a long one and it wasn’t until 2000 that a prototype equipped with radar was able to use this sensor for the practice launch of an anti-ship missile. The following year, the sixth aircraft was handed over for trials at the Akhtubinsk test facility, as the first Su-34 with a full avionics suite.
In 2003, the Russian Air Force revised its requirements for the Su-34, and test aircraft were reworked to meet the new, more demanding specifications. The reworked aircraft resumed state evaluation in 2006, a process that took almost another four years. During this period, combat trials were undertaken during Moscow’s war in Georgia in 2008, where the seventh and eighth aircraft were used to jam Georgian air defense radars.
In September 2011 the then commander-in-chief of the Russian Air Force, Alexander Zelin, officially recommended the Su-34 be introduced to service, and, finally, in March 2014, the Fullback was commissioned into service. Successive contracts have provided the Russian Aerospace Forces with around 140 Su-34s, in addition to test airframes.
Russian Fullbacks have been an enduring presence in Syria since Moscow launched its military intervention in that country’s civil war in September 2015. Commencing so soon after official service entry, these ongoing combat trials have played a significant role in proving out the Su-34 concept, as well as its avionics and weapons, including satellite-guided bombs and the new Kh-35U missile.
With this history in mind, the following examines some of the unusual and innovative features of the Su-34, an aircraft that remains widely misunderstood, largely a result of the hangover of Cold War-era military secrecy, some exaggerated marketing claims, and a complicated development path.
The key recognition feature of the Su-34 is its comparatively enormous ‘platypus’ nose. Behind the big radome is the antenna for the Sh141 radar system, optimized for air-to-ground missions but also offering air-to-air modes, allowing the Fullback to fly at least some missions unescorted.
The Sh141 suite is a product of the Leninets company actually combines the V004 radar with the Khibiny electronic countermeasures suite and identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) equipment via a mission computer.
The V004 uses a massive passive electronically scanned array (PESA) antenna and operates in the X band. It’s reportedly able to track 10 aerial targets while scanning and engage four of them simultaneously; a fighter-sized aircraft can reportedly be detected at 75 miles.
In its primary air-to-ground role, the radar can reportedly detect a large warship at a range of more than 80 miles, a rail bridge at over 60 miles, or a moving truck at 19 miles. These figures are provided for the export version of the radar, so it’s likely that the original Russian equipment possesses superior characteristics, although the radar range performance is less impressive when compared to the F-15E Strike Eagle’s original AN/APG-70, let alone its new AN/APG-82 with active electronically scanned array (AESA).
As well as the radar, the Su-34’s internal Pastel radar warning receiver can also be used for targeting, detecting threat emitters that can then be engaged using anti-radiation missiles, primarily the Kh-31P (AS-17 Krypton).
Enter the Hellduck
Stepping into the cockpit of the Su-34 is a very different experience from the single-seat or tandem-two-seat versions of the Flanker. For the first time in the Flanker family, the Su-34 introduced side-by-side seating, with the pilot on the left and a navigator/weapons system operator on the right. The crew enters the roomy cockpit via a ladder that drops down from the nosewheel bay and there is no standard provision to open the canopy. Both crewmen are provided with ‘zero-zero’ ejection seats, which are fired upwards after an explosive charge removes the main canopy.
Reflecting the fact that the Su-34 was also expected to operate over hostile air defenses, the entire cockpit is surrounded by a titanium alloy ‘box,’ which is more than 0.6 inches thick.
Galley and toilet
The sheer size of the Su-34’s cockpit has given rise to persistent rumors that its crew is provided with a galley and toilet. While the aircraft’s internal environment was tailored for very long-range missions, potentially involving multiple aerial refuelings, the actual nature of the galley and toilet are extremely primitive.
The ‘galley’ is little more than a heating unit — not a microwave — designed to warm up cans of food.
The ‘toilet,’ meanwhile, comprises a ‘sanitary container,’ basically, a metal canister with a cone-shaped aperture at one end. While the crew can urinate into this, anything, er, more advanced, is almost certainly not recommended.
While these amenities are basic, they could still be very welcome on a long-duration flight. Arguably more useful, however, is the provision of enough space for one crewmember to leave their seat and stand upright in a compartment behind the cockpit, or to lie prone, with their head and body over the entry hatch and their legs between the ejection seats. While hardly luxurious, this would clearly help cope this the physical of long flights.
Not surprisingly, the crew of the Su-34 have a much more modern working environment than their counterparts flying the Su-24. The cockpit is dominated by five large multifunctional liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) and there is also a head-up display for the pilot.
The Ramenskoye company is responsible for the human-aircraft interface, with the K-102 targeting and navigation suite bringing together all the aircraft’s avionics equipment. The K-102 is based around a central computer, the data display system, as well as the laser/TV sight, navigation suite, and other systems.
Beyond the primary multi-function LCDs, there is also a backup set of analog instruments. On more than one occasion, a Su-34 has also been noted with a Garmin off-the-shelf GPS system added to the cockpit to provide an additional, accurate, navigation capability.
Laser targeting system
The Platan (meaning sycamore) laser/TV targeting system is a key part of the Su-34’s ability to attack ground targets with high accuracy, day and night, although not necessarily in adverse weather since it lacks a thermal imaging capability. The Platan is also one of the reasons why you won’t see a targeting pod carried on one of the Fullback’s external hardpoints, although that’s also a trend reflected across the Russian air arms.
Since, traditionally, Soviet-designed ground-attack aircraft types were built only for use against ground targets, they tended to receive built-in targeting systems, rather than the pods that were typically added to Western fighters to give them enhanced air-to-ground functions.
Initially installed in the sixth prototype in a simplified fixed version, the production Su-34 incorporates the Platan in a retractable ventral mounting. When the aircraft is in cruising flight, the Platan’s optical package is stowed inside the fuselage. It then pops out, with its forward edge making a wedge shape, into the airstream when a target is being surveilled or engaged. The system offers only a very limited field of view and tracking range, especially when compared to a targeting pod with gimballed sensor head. This means it’s suitable for some higher-altitude operations, but is far less useful at lower levels.
The Platan system provides guidance for laser munitions, both powered air-to-surface missiles and freefall laser-guided bombs, the largest of which, the KAB-1500L, weighs over 3,300 pounds.
Overall, its capability is much more limited compared to modern advanced targeting pods, but it does provide the Su-34 with precision attack and limited surveillance capabilities without impacting the aerodynamics of the aircraft.
Another often-misunderstood aspect of the Su-34 is its enlarged tail, which projects far beyond its two engine exhausts and has a significantly greater diameter than the stings found on other Flanker derivatives.
Many Western sources have claimed that the tail sting contains a radar, looking rearward to provide warning of threats approaching from behind. While the idea was studied, it never happened, with the small, aft-looking V005 radar being abandoned at an early stage. When Russia briefly marketed the Fullback as a land-based maritime strike aircraft, under the Su-32FN designation, there was talk of the sting accommodating a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). That didn’t happen either.
Nevertheless, the idea of a rear-facing radar has endured, including the ability to attack targets from the rear aspect. This is likely the result of conflation with an experimental program in which heat-seeking K-74 (a development of the AA-11 Archer) air-to-air missiles were launched in a rear-firing mode from a Su-27. There’s no evidence that the same was ever attempted from the Su-34 and the missile program had been abandoned by the mid-1990s.
The enlarged tail sting of today’s Su-34 instead houses an auxiliary power unit (APU), evidenced by the exhaust grille on the port side. The APU supplies vital AC power to drive onboard aircraft systems and also ensures the cockpit and avionics receive air conditioning when the jet’s on the ground.
The tail boom also houses part of the Su-34’s self-protection suite. Eight countermeasures dispensers, which can each be loaded with 1.9-inch diameter chaff or flare rounds, are mounted below it.
When the Su-27IB was first flown, the single-wheel main landing gear looked much the same as that on the Su-27 fighter.
By the time the series-production Su-34 had emerged, the main landing gear was significantly beefed up, with twin wheels on each unit. Each of the main wheels is a significant item in itself, carrying a tire with a diameter of 37.4 inches.
The strengthened landing gear is required to cope with the Fullback’s increased maximum takeoff weight: over 99,000 pounds compared to a little under 73,000 pounds for a standard Su-27 Flanker-B. Like the other Flankers, however, the Su-34 retains the ability to operate from austere airfields, an important part of Soviet, and now Russian, combat doctrine.
At one time, Sukhoi anticipated building specialized reconnaissance and escort-jamming variants of the Fullback, in the same way as had been done with the earlier Su-24, which would have yielded the Su-34R and Su-34P.
The Su-34R would have had internal side-looking radar, and other reconnaissance equipment. The Su-34P, meanwhile, would have been based around the internal Kavkaz (Caucasus) jamming suite.
Ultimately, those two programs were judged too expensive for the revamped Russian Air Force and attention turned to providing the Su-34 strike aircraft with a range of modular pods to carry out those missions.
The recce-configured Su-34 has its reconnaissance gear carried in external pods. The primary sensor is the Pika side-looking radar that can reportedly scan, on each side of the jet, an area up to 37 miles wide over land, or up to 75 miles wide over the sea. An electro-optical pod carries a TV camera and infrared line scanner. The third pod is equipped with a signals intelligence system. Each pod also features a wideband datalink to transmit data to the ground in real-time.
The Su-34 already has a latent jamming capability thanks to its Khibiny self-protection system, which can be used to disrupt enemy air defense radars. The Khibiny suite includes internal equipment behind the cockpit as well as optional large wingtip pods. The system is designed to detect, classify, and locate radar emitters, as well as jam these emitters.
To boost the jamming capabilities of the jet, and to supersede the stillborn Su-34P, it can be fitted with four underwing jamming pods that are integrated with the Khibiny suite. Using pods means the aircraft can bring more power to bear across a wider range of frequencies. The original L175 Khibiny series of jamming pods have since been joined by the more modern L700 Tarantul series, which involves a large pod carried under the fuselage.
A video report showing details of the wingtip Khibiny jamming pods, as well as the centerline Tarantul pod:
With the Fullback now occupying an important position in the Russian Aerospace Forces, the development of the Su-34 is continuing. The Su-34M upgrade program aims to further enhance the jet’s capabilities, with modifications to the radar system, targeting and navigation complex, plus new weapons. Upgraded jets began to be redelivered last year and the Russian Air Force has begun testing a new combined reconnaissance and targeting pod, developed under the Sych (little owl) program and pictured below.
With new upgrades as well as additional weapons and stores planned, it seems likely that the Fullback will add yet more innovative features in the future. But even as it sits now, it is one of the world’s most intriguing combat aircraft, with looks that are unique to itself.
Note: The original version of this article described the Su-34’s cockpit armor as being more than six inches thick. It is, of course, more than 0.6 inches thick, or 17 millimeters.
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